TIME Careers & Workplace

Working Harder Not Really Worth It, Researchers Find

You might think turning in a project early, putting more effort into it or otherwise going above and beyond what you promise to do at work is a good way to get ahead. Save yourself the trouble: It isn’t.

“Breaking one’s promise is costly, but exceeding it does not appear worth the effort,” writes Ayelet Gneezy, an associate professor of behavioral sciences and marketing in the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego. “Promise receivers consistently failed to recognize the additional effort required to exceed a promise.”

In a series of experiments, Gneezy evaluates how people respond to a promise that is broken, met or exceeded. If you don’t follow through on a promise, the person you let down is likely to see you as more selfish, less generous and less fair — not the kind of reputation you want to cultivate with bosses, coworkers or clients.

Unfortunately, though, exceeding a promise doesn’t earn you any more kudos than if you simply do what you pledged to do. Gneezy finds that this holds true even when the person to whom the promise is made benefits from the extra effort.

Where you do benefit by going above and beyond is exceeding expectations. In one experiment, Gneezy finds that people are happier when expectations are surpassed versus when they are simply met.

What’s the difference? It sounds like splitting hairs, but there’s an important distinction, Gneezy says.

“Promises are not merely expectations,” she says. As it turns out, we view promises as social contracts between people, which makes us unconsciously elevate their importance. “The contractual nature of a promise provides value above and beyond a promise’s tangible outcome,” Gneezy writes. And while contracts can be kept or broken, there’s no mechanism for earning extra credit.

“When companies, friends, or coworkers put forth the effort to keep a promise, their effort is likely to be rewarded,” Gneezy writes. Since just keeping your word is good enough, focus on that, she advises. You can damage your reputation if you break that promise, but you won’t get any advantage from exceeding it, even if the person you made the promise to benefits from your extra effort.

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